Credit: Image Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
On March 31, 1776, future First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, who was soon to be appointed a member of the committee drafting the Declaration of Independence:
... In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I would desire you would Remember the Ladies.... Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.... If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
Mrs. Adams's remarks were well ahead of their time. The representation she wrote about did not formally materialize until 1917, when Jeannette Rankin was elected the first female member of the House of Representatives. In 1920, the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to vote.
In the absence of official power, women had to find other ways to shape the world in which they lived. The First Ladies of the United States were among the women who were able to play "a significant role in shaping the political and social history of our country, impacting virtually every topic that has been debated" (Mary Regula, Founding Chair and President, National Board of Directors for The First Ladies' Library).
Through the lessons in this unit, you will explore with your students the ways in which First Ladies were able to shape the world while dealing with the expectations placed on them as women and as partners of powerful men.
How have First Ladies traditionally been viewed? How much has that view changed in two centuries? To answer these questions, begin by comparing visual images of First Ladies and their husbands from the nation's early years and more recent times. (Note: The photograph analysis worksheet available through the EDSITEment-reviewed The Digital Classroom may be useful in comparing the portraits in this lesson.)
1. Share with your class portraits of Abigail Adams and President John Adams from the original paintings by Gilbert Stuart, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory. Despite similar poses, these portraits are quite different. What details do the students notice in the two portraits? (For example, the President is shown with a book.) How do these portraits differ from each other? What reasons can the students offer for these differences? What is their significance?
2. Now share with your class official White House portraits from the EDSITEment resource American Memory of Jimmy Carter (color version or black and white) and Rosalynn Carter (color version or black and white), created in January and February 1977, respectively. What differences do students recognize between the two modern portraits? Are the differences similar or dissimilar to those present in the Adams portraits created nearly 200 years earlier? Does this indicate a change in the public image of a First Lady?
3. Ask students to think about whether the role of First Lady might have changed between 1977 and today. In what ways? Why?
If desired, the students can look at home for news or magazine articles or web news about the First Lady.
Traditionally, the First Lady has been regarded primarily as a political helpmate for her husband, a social leader in Washington, and an unofficial representative of the female population throughout the United States.
Pass out to small groups an appropriate number of the following images. Appoint a spokesperson for each group. Give the groups time to analyze their images. (The document analysis worksheets available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom may be useful in completing this analysis.) Then, the group spokesperson should share the image with the class, describe it and hypothesize about the First Lady role represented. Make a list of the traditional First Lady roles that come up through this discussion and save it for future reference.
Setting Fashion Standards
Uplifting National Spirit During a Crisis
Serving as the White House Representative in Areas of Special Interest to Women
Campaigning for Her Husband (both with and without him)
Promoting Charities and Causes
Accompanying the President at Important Functions
Making Good Will Travel Missions
Serving as White House Hostess
Maintaining the Role of Wife and Mother
Taking an Interest in White House Restoration, Renovation and Preservation
Circumstances and individual personalities have sometimes resulted in a First Lady taking on responsibilities not generally (or at least not publicly) associated with the role.
Share with your class the story of Dolly Madison and the British attack on the White House, a brief version of which is available on The White House for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed National First Ladies Library. Discuss the story with the class. What do students think of Mrs. Madison's actions? Do they think she did more than would have been expected of a First Lady?
Pass out to small groups an appropriate number of images from the list below. Appoint a spokesperson for each group. Give the groups time to analyze the image. (The document analysis worksheets available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom may be useful in completing this analysis.) Then, the spokesperson should share the image with the class, describe it and hypothesize about the First Lady role represented. Make a list of these non-traditional First Lady roles as they are discussed and save it for future reference.
Advising the President
Lobbying for Causes Behind the Scenes
Taking a High-Profile Moral Stand
Assuming Important Roles after Being First Lady
Taking a Stand for the Rights of Women
Having a Career
Give your students the opportunity to get to know some of the nation's First Ladies with whom they are likely to be less familiar. An expanded knowledge base about First Ladies will help students clarify what they learned in Lessons 2 and 3. Surveying many First Ladies will also prepare students for the culminating activity found in Lesson 5.
Biographies of all of the First Ladies are available online through the White House website and through the National First Ladies Library, both accessible through links from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Provide students, working individually or in small groups, with biographies of one or more First Ladies. Cover as many of the First Ladies as appropriate to the class.
Review with students the traditional and non-traditional roles of the First Lady that were discussed in Lessons 2 and 3 of this unit, and ask students to find examples of those roles in the biographies of First Ladies. Does the information in the biographies support the documentary evidence of the traditional and non-traditional roles the students have already studied? Have the non-traditional roles received more or less public attention and recognition than the traditional roles? Why do students think this is the case? Do the lists of roles need to be redefined? Is the distinction between traditional and non-traditional roles a valid one? Does the current First Lady fall more into the category of traditional roles or non-traditional roles? Has the role of the First Lady changed? In what ways?
Why are some First Ladies more memorable than others?
At home, your students will conduct a poll of adults to find out which First Ladies come to mind for them.
1. Let students decide the "ground rules" for the poll, such as:
2. Share and analyze poll results. As a class, choose a certain number of First Ladies appearing in the poll (about five, or any number appropriate to the size of your class) for further research in small groups. In addition, let students choose an equal number of First Ladies who did not appear in the poll to research as well. Groups of two to three students then do an in-depth study of the First Ladies they selected.
Group research should attempt to answer the following:
3. Have each group present its findings to the class, alternating between presentations on "memorable" and "unmemorable" First Ladies. Presentations, which should include a biography, could be oral reports or a display such as a "mini-museum" of her life, much like the rooms devoted to the First Lady in Presidential Libraries. Student museums could be constructed in large boxes, or tech-savvy students could create a Power Point presentation for the class.
4. Take a class poll. Establish a list of the First Ladies most worth remembering, based on student responses. How does the list differ from the poll of adults? Make a list of First Ladies who deserve more recognition. The class could create a bulletin board for public display promoting the lesser-known First Ladies.
If desired, use a rubric to evaluate students' presentations on First Ladies from Lesson 5. To be completely effective, a rubric should be designed for your class with student skill level, your curriculum, and the specific assignment in mind. The following is a sample. If desired, click here to download this rubric to copy or to use when designing your own.
| Does Not Meet|
|Structure: (Note: This section of the evaluation asks if the elements are present.)|
Did the presentation or display:
|Content: (Note: This section evaluates the quality of the information presented.)|
Did the presentation or display:
|Delivery (speech): Was the speaker's:|
|Mechanics (display): Does the piece evidence care taken with:|
|Overall Rating (circle one): |
Meets All or Most
Many presidential libraries, including the following referenced in these lessons, are accessible through links from Digital Classroom:
History Matters: A Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events Pre-1620 to 1920
1 class periods